A Lesson in Patience

I’ve been thinking about patience lately, as three projects that I finished over three years ago have finally found a pathway to publication.

For the record, I’ve been in Muscatine for three years. Before that, we lived in a tiny town on a large lake in central Illinois. I left a tenure-track job I loved to become a freelance editor, independent scholar, and full-time parent. Writing was a way to stay connected to what I felt was my core self, beneath the housewife, cleaning lady, addled mom, and insomniac coffee drinker.

Book cover: Teaching Rape in the Medieval Literature ClassroomAll three are projects I cared deeply about and put a lot of myself into, and which taught me a valuable writing lesson. My chapter on “Sexual Violence and Sexual Compulsion in the Lais of Marie de France,” for Alison Gulley’s book on teaching rape in medieval lit, was the first academic article I’d written in a couple of years (despite that tenure-track job, in which I was expected to produce research). Alison’s eagle-eyed editing and patient sculpting of that essay to its true form was an eye-opening experience in what a generous, smart, well-spoken editor can make a piece become. That book, after passing through several publishing houses, is coming out at the end of June from ARC Humanities Press as Teaching Rape in the Medieval Literature Classroom: Approaches to Difficult Texts. Unfortunately for the world, the discussion of ways in which Western medieval literature appropriates, obliterates, and violates the feminized body has direct and immediate relevance to modern mainstream culture.

Book cover: The Ballad of the Lone MedievalistA second essay was a personal reflection on my time in that tenure-track position at Lewis-Clark State College and my beloved work as the representative medievalist. Editors Kisha Tracy and John Sexton were putting together a book on being the lone medievalist (there’s a Facebook page, a website, and lots of community around this, due mostly to Kisha’s efforts to connect and unite medievalists, rescuing them from loneliness). The Ballad of the Lone Medievalist collects essays with a variety of approaches to the topic, and this book, too, had a long journey into life—not long in the scope of academic publishing, though long when you consider how quickly, in comparison, Melusine’s Footprint came together, due in large part to our excellent series editor at Brill, Professor Larissa Tracy.

When I proofed this essay not so many weeks ago, I was touched and surprised to revisit that me of two houses, two lives ago—the tenure-track academic version of me, newlywed, full of energy—and surprised at how good some of her advice seems even now. That woman had no patience, however; she launched herself straight into things, and expected results, if not immediately, then on her own timeline.

Third but not least, a project that has more of my marrow in it, a researched personal essay on my C-section experience, is part of a collection currently titled The Emperor’s Cut that is now, after long effort, under contract. That essay drew a lot out of me as I explored my protracted episode of acute, chronic insomnia that followed my son’s birth (post tenure-track job, central-Illinois life) and linked it to my evolving suspicion that my suffering was post-partum related, possibly even classifiable as a symptom of post-partum depression (PPD). Watching the editors of this volume pursue publication with unflagging courage through round after round of submission, more than one agent, editor interest, editor rejection, and nearly every obstacle you can think of, with the eventual triumph of securing a publisher and a contract, has been an education for me, and a lesson I can apply to my own experience with my historical novel.

On the timeline I envisioned, THE LIGHTED HEART would already be agented, auctioned, and sold in a six-figure, two-book contract, with publication slated for this year. Instead, I am now in the process of polishing draft 12, a significant revision of the version I shopped with no success last summer. I feel like I’m finally learning how to write a novel. It seems outrageous that it’s taken this long, and I realize I needed the 11 previous drafts to get to this one. Of course there’s no guarantee that this version of the book is saleable, publishable, likeable, or worth anything, but I like it much better. I feel like it has more life, more urgency, more tension. I feel like it’s finally becoming the best version of itself—the version ready to submit to agents, who will likely have notes for revision, and editors, who will have ditto.

I won’t lie: It’s been excruciating for me that this is taking so long. I wrote the zero draft for the 2012 NaNoWriMo challenge. Skip a few years in central Illinois for childbirth, stay-at-home moming, a year lost to insomnia, and my concerted undertaking of novel revision can be traced to June 2015, my first David Collins Writing Conference through the Midwest Writing Center. I put draft 6 on submission in May 2016 and quickly learned it was no good. Submissions again in the summer of 2017 yielded more requests, no results. Will 2019—the magical 7th year of work on this book—be the year of Misty—or rather, the year of Thomasine? I hope so, but I’m finally willing to be patient and–more importantly–do the necessary work. I’ve watched the editors of the above books toil and hope and struggle and try, try again, and I feel I ought to take their lessons in steadfast courage to heart. There’s no deadline, no expiration date on work that matters.

Patience, it seems, does not mean simply waiting. It means continually working to fine-tune, see more deeply, understand, and improve. It was a lesson a long time in the making, but I hope I can say I’ve learned it, finally. Or, at least, learned patience for now.

Surrender and Submission, pt 3: Done, but Not Done

I’ve emerged from the wandering wood – or at least, I see the edge of it. Yesterday, I finished my rewrite of my historical novel. Last scene of last chapter, the final reconciliation: done. I thought, I ought to celebrate. With the rest of the day taking over from those precious early morning writing hours with dentist appointments, the prospect of surgeries, deadlines, and dinners, I didn’t even mark the occasion other than to tell my writing group, “I did it.”

There’s a bit of housekeeping left. I need to do one more read-through for continuity before I send the book off to the next round of beta readers (and who am I going to find among my friends and writing colleagues who hasn’t read this thing already? We’re up to draft 11, for heaven’s sake.) I changed a few names. I combined two towns. I married off a vicar who’d been single in drafts one through 10. And I changed the ages of some key characters, for purposes of plot. I need to smooth out those last rough patches before anyone else sees it.

I feel bursting with triumph, and hopeful. Last night I dreamed that the very first agent who saw the new draft signed me and sold the book. (IRL, this is an agent who has already passed on the MS, though she was very nice and encouraging about it.) I feel like these revisions are a vast improvement. When I sat down to start the re-read this morning, I could see all the ways the new version is an improvement. The first chapter is tighter, leaner, cleaner. There is tension in the air. There’s a problem. There are stakes.

I also found myself, yesterday and today, filled with wild apprehension and attacks of stabbing anxiety. It’s better, but is it good enough? Is it good enough to sell this time? How long should I wait before I start submitting again? Should I put it in a drawer and let it rest for a time? Should I just take my chances? What if my beta readers are encouraging (like last time) but the agent and editor rejection is total and complete (again)? What if the book never sells? What if I never sell anything?

The old thoughts and limiting beliefs keeping popping up, like a whack-a-mole game. But I’ve learned a few things from this process.

If it’s not good enough, I can make it better.

If the book doesn’t sell, I can write something else.

If I never sell anything, I least I’ll still be writing. And it’s the writing I love most. I love holding my published books, admittedly. I adore the process of editing, proofing, sending in final corrected galleys, reviewing covers designs and marketing plans. I won’t lie: I absolutely love that feeling of signing a contract to publish a work.

Part of the goal of writing is to produce writing. I get that. But the reward of writing is the process itself: the discipline, the control, the possibilities, the intoxicating feeling of swimming in that creative realm. That keeps me coming back to the page, no matter what.

Besides that, I keep seeing reposted everywhere some version of this message: “The people who succeed are the ones who never gave up.” So I’ll keep trying. Keep tossing myself, heart and soul and manuscript pages in hand, at those hurdles. One day, I’ll make it over clear.

Surrender and Submission, pt. 2: Begin Again

Last month, I wrote about how I was (not) handling agent rejections. I struggled mightily with the sense that each pass, no matter how politely phrased, was a subtle affirmation of the “you’re not good enough” voice that lurks deep within me. Instead of being able to approach the process like shopping for the right pair of shoes—and being able to try, try again until I found the ones that looked great, felt great, matched the outfit, and made me want to click my heels together—I felt like the new neighbor bringing Jello-O salad to the block party that already had three dozen Jell-O salads, all better than mine. I slunk away each time with the sense that my untouched, scorned, passed-over salad shouted to the world of my deep inadequacies as a cook, a guest, a creator, and a person.

I remember saying I didn’t want to rewrite the MS, that I liked it as-is. I decided to send to a couple of publishers who take submissions directly, two of which wanted a longer synopsis than the one I had prepared. I decided I would look at the MS again to write the more detailed synopsis. I’d keep swinging, as the agent who suggested a revise/resubmit, then declined again, told me to do.

I put the synopsis on the bottom of the to-do list, and left it there for a while. Things were going merrily along on the first draft of the next novel, the one with my feminist reformer in 1792 London, which I completed for NaNoWriMo and is about 40,000 words too long to be accepted anywhere. Then I got word that people were actually reading an old novel I’d posted to a group-read site on a whim last summer (well, actually, posted for a contest, but it didn’t win—no surprise.) I went on a two-week, red-eyed revision bender, crunching four or five chapters a day to rewrite that book into something I wasn’t ashamed to bear my pseudonym.

Then I came back to the novel I’d been shopping, Thomasine’s story, The Lighted Heart.

And as I read some way into it, I realized I could understand why I kept hearing from agents that they weren’t feeling a connection. I wasn’t feeling the connection, either. It was well-written, I still love the characters, and I like the overall arc, but something about the scenes were falling a little flat. I had pages and pages of witty banter, but where was the conflict? The drama, the tension? What were the stakes?

Where, I kept asking myself, is the problem here?

Turns out the time away from the MS proved beneficial. With the other two novels, I’d been reading for revision, looking hard for what I could cut, what characters needed more development, what scenes needed more tension, what needed to be added, and what needed to be completely rewritten. And I came back to Thomasine’s story with these revision goggles on, rather than, as I think I had been doing before, trying to make sure the revisions I’d already made kept the plot development intact. Instead of just looking to make sure everything fit, I was looking to make sure everything worked.

And not all of it did. Or at least, not as good as I wanted it to be working. I could see room for improvement.

But did I want to dive in and rewrite this story one more time? I wasn’t sure.

I’ve put this novel through ten drafts over the course of 5 years (with some time lost due to birthing and tending babies). I have friends who have read it two or three times now (and I love them deeply for it). I’d envisioned a historical novel in the vein of Jane Austen, with biting social commentary layered into the story of a young woman’s maturation into a vocation, a sense of self, and adult relationships, including romance. Following the advice of a couple of agents and published writers, I had later reframed and pitched the book as historical romance. Even though I didn’t think it really fit as a historical romance, and that didn’t capture the soul of it.

I met with one of my writing groups (I have three) and told them about an idea that had been growing for some time, but which I’d resisted because I didn’t want to revise yet again. It would change the stakes considerably for my protagonist, give her a new and added problem and motivation, and lead to a greater payoff in the climactic scene. As I spoke with my friends, the energy of this idea sparked from me to them. They know the character almost as well as I do and could see the implications: what would she do when–? What if–? And then what if?

I scribbled notes and left the meeting buoyant and determined. I knew exactly what I wanted to do. New pieces of the story were unfolding in my head. Again.

I pulled up the last draft I had loved, before I got the advice to cut it down significantly because of the word limits publishers will accept, before I got the advice to turn it into a romance. I went back to the draft that had been the book I wanted to write and I decided to revise it into the book *I* wanted it to be.

Not a book I thought I could sell. The book I wanted this to be.

 

Something magical happened. Actually, two magical things. I fell in love with the story all over again. The characters feel as real to me as the people in my life. I fall asleep watching them move around their stage. Some scenes compressed. Some scenes grew. I cut out the hero’s p.o.v. altogether. This is a challenge, because now I have to show his inner life and his  struggles only through what the heroine sees. With every change, I grill myself on my intention: am I just trying to lead in to the next scene I’ve already written, as I had been doing with previous versions? Or am I writing the scene that has to be there, that couldn’t happen any other way?

Revision is hard, in some ways harder than writing the draft, where there was little worry; if I didn’t like a scene, or it didn’t fit later, I could just cut. Now things have to work. There has to be a problem. There has to be tension on every page. There have to be agendas and cross-purposes and I get to add back in all the lush historical detail that I kept paring back because editors said it was too much. It’s an incredible challenge. The characters keep unfolding to me in new and deeper ways. I feel what they feel. Sometimes, I admit, I feel the resistance coming up again: I’m changing so much! Do I want to? What if I’m killing it?

But when I read the story, I don’t feel I’m killing it. I feel like it’s taking new life. I’m in love with the book all over again.

And I’m in love with the process all over again, even with how hard it is. I love how much this is demanding of me, to write my story, or rather her story, to watch my character learn and cry and grow, rather than trying to hit plot points or genre features or themes that readers love.

I also feel silly that it’s so hard. Why did I pick something so hard to love? In my first job out of college, when I was writing software code, nothing matched the frustration of trying to work through a particular bug. Nothing matched the exhilaration of finding the code that worked and made the whole program come alive.

When I read what I’ve revised so far (I’m about 80 pages in), it feels utterly familiar. I keep having to look at earlier drafts to remind myself what’s changed. I like to think this is because everything there belongs. This version also sings to me in a way the story hasn’t before. There’s a new thread of excitement running through it, and through me. There’s more at stake now, in every respect.

Of course I hope this version will sing to an agent and a publisher and readers, too. I didn’t start down this path with the daydream of posting a book online that no one actually reads.

But even if agents and publishers don’t like this version, either, I feel differently about the story. I’m behind it more than ever. I’m writing the best book I know how to write, and I’m letting it change me just as my characters are deepening and growing in new ways. No matter what happens to it—if I self-publish and sell 20 copies to my cousins, best friends, aunts, and mom—this is the story I want to tell.

Sure, I’ve considered whether revising one more time is just an avoidance tactic, pulling my book from the line up so I don’t have to come up to bat and strike out again. Am I afraid of success? Am I afraid of failure? Am I afraid of finding out I don’t really have what it takes to get and agent and land a deal with a traditional publisher? All of the above.

But, once again the process, not the recognition, has become the reward. This isn’t about writing a bestseller. This is about learning how to write a good novel. And I’m reminded, every day when I sit down to my computer, why I’ve been writing stories since I was seven years old. I love to write. I get to spend part of every day doing something I love this much, creating something I think is meaningful, that brings me joy, and that I hope will bring as much joy to others.

It feels great. And, oddly enough, the rejection doesn’t hurt anymore, because it brought me here: back to the work, back to the love, back to the long slow patient process.

Everything’s going to be okay. In fact, things are blooming.

Surrender and Submission, pt 1: The Dark Night

Dante’s Inferno begins with the narrator lost in the middle of a dark wood. I’m right there with him. The manuscript for my historical novel has been on submission to agents for six months (or a year and a half, depending on how you’re counting) and the rejections are trickling in. Each time I get one, I tell myself, “Okay, not my agent. Next!” But really, I’m stabbed through the heart. The blood trickles for a few hours, staining everything I touch—my editing work, my phone calls, my time with my kids—and by nightfall, I’m a small animal keening and whimpering in my den. Keening and surrounded by mounds of chocolate, cheese and crackers, and sometimes a glass of wine to replenish the blood supply.

Why am I taking this so hard? It’s just a matter of fit. You wouldn’t buy a pair of shoes that pinched. You wouldn’t buy a dress that didn’t flatter you (even after you lost that pound or five you’ve been meaning to shed). You wouldn’t buy furniture that you couldn’t get into your house. And you wouldn’t pursue a mate who made it clear they just weren’t that into you. (And if you did—as some of us have—you know it ends badly.) You want the agent who loves your book, is crazy about your concept, and gets giddy at the thought of the readers you can transport together. So why do I have to pull a knife out of my chest every time an agent says “I’m not the one for you?”

Same reason I’ve ever pursued anything that clearly wasn’t for me. I really want this.

I’ve wanted to publish a novel since I wrote my first one at 16. That’s—ahem—going on 25 years ago now. I’ve been playing the “I will have a book by X” game for a decade. I thought I would publish the novel I wrote at 30 (and that it would be a bestseller, too, when that thing probably should never have seen the light of day). Book by 35? Yes! My dissertation won a prize and saw its way into print. Book by 40? Bingo! My book of short stories won a prize and came out last year from a brilliant small press. This year, a book of medieval essays I co-edited was published by a top-notch medieval publisher. Several short stories and a creative nonfiction essay came out this year, and a sonnet I wrote won a prize. I have more publications than I can remember to add to the CV. I am extraordinarily, absurdly, disgustingly charmed and lucky.

And yet. I lose sleep at night fearing I will die before I publish a novel, before I will achieve that One Dream I’ve wanted more than anything—more than I want to climb the pyramids at Giza, more than I want social justice, more than I want to cure climate change. (Well, okay, I want all of those things and to publish a novel.) Of course, once I have published a novel, I want to publish more of them. Strings of novels. Schools of novels. But this one hurdle, this one desire—the Debut—I keep throwing myself at it, and I keep crashing down, just like ninth-grade track practice.

Misty, I hear you saying. Seriously. If it means that much to you, self-publish. The publishing scene has changed since you got your MFA. Self-published books can be good now. If you’ve done the work and you think the book is in good enough shape to send out to an agent, then consider whether it’s good enough to self-publish.

I have. And I haven’t crossed self-publishing off the list of options. It’s there, down the road, one of a handful of possible destinations for this novel. But I wanted to try the traditional route first, and not just because of the MFA, not just because I was trained as a literary writer (it’s not a literary novel, after all), and not just because there is still more industry cred if someone else besides you puts out your book.

I want someone else to tell me I’m good enough. Someone whose opinion results in my getting a book deal.

I also, let’s face it, want a team. I want to do just the writing part and have someone else pass me a cover design to vet and a marketing plan to follow and a contract to read and sign. Though I understand the realities of marketing in the world today, I long for the fantasy of that traditional arrangement where I just hand over the manuscripts and my agent sends me the edits, then the galleys, and then the checks. When you self-publish, you have to hustle. You have to be an authorpreneur. You have to have a brand and a following and a presence and a professional-looking website and my throat is closing up at the very thought of all that it takes to be a successful indie author.

But most of all, when I pull the knife out of the heart and examine it, I recognize the magical thinking: if the book is good, then I am good. Readers, yes, I hope that at the end of all this, lots and lots of readers will love the book as much as I do. That’s everyone’s hope, in some version. But the agent and publisher rejection strikes me right at the heart of that unloveable, not-good-enough, will-never-be-good-enough wound that I’ve carried around for as long as I can remember. Every time an agent says “thanks, but not for me,” they’re whispering, “it’s not really good.” “Liked it, didn’t love it” means “you don’t really have what it takes.” “Didn’t connect with the concept/characters” translates to “honestly, I can’t see anything here, and why did you waste your time on this, again?” And the dead, static-filled silence of no response at allmeans: you’re simply not good enough.

And may never be. Until I get The Call. Until I get the gatekeeper’s go-ahead, the professional’s confirmation that yes, this is a book I can fall in love with, this is a project I can get behind, this book belongs on the shelves and in readers’ hands and their suitcases and their mom’s hands and their lover’s nightstand after they’re done. I crave that validation.

I may not ever get it. And I have to learn how to deal with that. Because honestly, I need the sleep.

I’ve put this book through ten drafts, several editors, two agent workshops, a novel seminar, and a paid evaluation by a bestselling author. Right now, it’s as good as I know how to make it. I could revise it yet again, turn it into another book entirely, but I really don’t want to. As I read back through the manuscript before sending out those first chapters yet again, I find myself caught up and going far beyond the first fifty pages. I want to plunge through the whole book, take that journey with my characters all over again, laughing and crying and cheering them on. I’m more in love with this novel than ever. I adore my bookish, eccentric, stubborn heroine and the way she is passionate about insoluble math problems. I feel even more strongly, in the face of all this rejection, that we need more stories about brave girls in history who went against the accepted thinking of their time.

I love this book. I believe in it. So that is why I’m compiling yet another hit list and agents and publishers, and finally joining QueryTracker—acknowledgement that I’m in this for the long haul, and it may be very, very long. But I also need something to keep me going along the way—the words that I can carry with me on this soul-searching, deeply testing journey. Not Dante’s “Abandon all hope,” thanks, but something that will help me keep faith as I toil through the Slough of Despond and the Pits of Despair.

Dear reader, tell me what advice you have. Give me that small, unquenchable talisman to light up the darkness. Send me the magic feather that will carry me through. I’m developing my own thoughts about how to surrender this process—the subject of future post, perhaps—but right now, I want to hear yours.

The life of the independent scholar

With the publication of Melusine’s Footprint: Tracing the Legacy of a Medieval Myth (hurray and huzzah! she’s here!) and the acceptance of a paper for the book at the Illinois Medieval Association meeting in February 2018, I’m feeling more like an independent scholar again. It’s good to feel like a scholar at all again—I’ve missed it.

Independent scholars are what we call ourselves when we research, publish, and conference for fun rather than under the aegis of a college or university. I admit that, as a graduate student depending on the prospect of getting a tenure-track job somewhere, I worried that the “independent scholar” label was less legit than a university affiliation. If you loved the work and were good at it, why wouldn’t someone hire you and pay you to work? I admit I was both naive and a snob—a naive snob.

Yes, this is a melusine. Look familiar?

After 2008 and the Great Recession, the shrinking of the American university and the enormous competition for academic jobs of any sort, not just tenure-track, the title “independent scholar” seems to have lost that misfit odor. Like self-publishing your book, there are ways to do it professionally and right, not only keeping the same standards as the gatekeepers but in some cases filling a need that the traditional venues don’t fill.

For instance, while medievalism has in the past few years been a very hot topic of study, and investigating the modern (re)appropriation of medieval culture in everything from film and TV to white supremacist blogs is more timely still, I get to do things like examine modern re-inventions of Melusine and feel like my research fits right in. From Maleficent to the Starbucks siren, to the novels of Philippa Gregory and the villainesses of the graphic arts, Melusine is snaking her mermaid-tail and snaky wings more and more prominently into the cultural imagination.

I have an academic affiliation again, and am grateful for it; I get to hone and refine my teaching skills on a new batch of students each semester, and in the spring, my work at the Success Center at Muscatine Community College will keep me engaged and learning. But, like the part of me that is a novelist and short-story writer and now an essayist as well, I still feel like my scholarship, research and publication, is independent of what MCC needs of me. I do it for fun, because I have questions I want to answer, ideas I want to propose, ways of reading I want to suggest to other people.

A more modern version of Melusine

I’ve always straddled a strange line, from graduate school through my wonderful, much-loved gig as assistant professor of English at Lewis-Clark State College: I’m a creative writer and a scholar, a researcher and a writer. And a teacher, too; that’s three parts of the brain I have to be using, three areas I need to be skilled in. Then there’s the editing I’ve been doing since grad school as a kind of side gig and, at the same time, an extension of one of my favorite aspects of teaching: using what I know as a writer to help other people write well. So there’s a fourth part, or perhaps an overlap. There must be some way my identities work all together, and one day I’ll sit down and draw that map. It might help me better manage my time.

I’ll need it, because aside from the practical drawback that independent scholarship doesn’t pay the way an academic salary does, the other drawback to straddling disciplines is the to-do list. Here’s a glance at mine for the holiday break, now that grades are filed and work at the Writing Center is wrapped up:

  • Write the conference paper
  • Review the books (currently, I have 3 to finish, for 3 different places)
  • Edit the manuscript I’ve been contracted to do
  • Research for the novel I’m writing (1792 England)
  • Keep querying and sending out the novel I finished (with my mathematical heroine, Thomasine; astonishingly, no one has yet jumped at the chance to publish that book, so I’m still shopping her with high hopes)
  • Put together a proposal for the third collection of short stories
  • Submit the various stories that haven’t found a home yet. Consider writing more
  • Write the novella I said I’d write
  • Join the societies I told myself I’d join
  • Redo the author website (way overdue)

And, at some point, I need to organize this chaotic office. If messiness is a sign of genius, I’m all set.

That’s my holiday break, and I can’t wait to tackle this list. It’s all part of the work I love and am so grateful that I get to do. Hope your holiday break is just as full of all your favorite things.

Misty’s messy office

The Pleasures of Flash Fiction

I’ve had luck with placing very short pieces lately. Fiction Attic accepted a flash fiction piece, “River Bottom,” the day after I submitted it, and it appeared on the site one day later. The Cerurove included my piece “Happiness” in their inaugural issue, just released. My 300-word story incorporating a line from Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court ranked in this year’s short fiction contest hosted by the River Cities’ Reader, and draft: the journal of process posted a literary collage I wrote as an exercise in a workshop this summer at the David R. Collins Writing Conference. A somewhat longer story, “Ficus,” at 1400 words, was accepted for publication in District Lit. All of these were picked up on their very first submission, which always feels gratifying and serendipitous, hitting the sweet spot (one hopes) of a perfect confluence among editor and journal and reader and story and me.

In contrast, my long-form fiction hasn’t been as lucky. Two stories I’ve been sending out for years, “Ask” and “The Day of the Beheaded Barbie,” keep coming back to me. Sometimes they come back with encouraging rejections. That soothes the sting a bit—like the adult child offering to pay rent when she moves back in with you. You appreciate the gesture, and the rent will help, but really, the idea was that she would strike out on her own into a world that would embrace her, her own two feet firmly beneath her, going on with your love and blessing to be an independent organism now.

A very long, almost novella-length story that I’ve been sending out for some time was accepted for print in an anthology—but they only wanted or had room for 4 pages of the 30-page whole. (The excerpt is from “Bay City” and it appears, alongside an astonishing piece of art, in Domestic, available now from Willow Press.)

As we know, my collection THE NECESSARIES did not move forward for consideration for the Bakwin Award for Writing by a Woman, though the brief period when it was on the long list was very thrilling. My novel THE LIGHTED HEART has not yet been snapped up by an agent or publisher who has fallen in love and must possess it immediately. (I remain hopeful that this will yet be its fate.) But as I work on the next novel for NaNoWriMo, and watch—gratefully, I must say—the short fiction pop into print while the long fiction circles and circles, dragging like a drowned worm, I do wonder what might be going right with the short-short fiction that the rest of my stories can learn from.

I have some guesses.

  • Compression adds tension. When the words are limited, there can be nothing superfluous. Everything there must help tell the story, and through several means at once: sound, symbolism, meaning, and action. Perhaps this tight condensing pulls the reader in more quickly and pops her gasping for air—the kind of reading experience we want to have as readers, and want to give our readers when we write.
  • Like a joke, flash fiction demands you get in and get out. You simply outrun the reader’s attention span. You don’t wander away from a two-minute anecdote at the cocktail party; you might be gathering your munchie and drink, but by the time you’re sorted, it’s over. And you can move on to the next.
  • Small things are adorable. Like babies, kittens, and just-born turtles: we see something that small, and we’re irresistibly drawn to it.
  • The structure compels. Along with the compression comes speed; once you’re drawn in, things move quickly from beginning to middle to end. Or maybe:
  • We read flash fiction more like an image than a narrative. Here’s the theory that feels most compelling to me at the moment. Short short pieces rarely tell a complete narrative. Think of the unwearyingly clever six-word story. You could argue there is causality, character, movement, consequence, but you have to argue hard and be very imaginative. Think about Hemingway’s famous example: “For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.” That’s a solid sock of feeling that invites you, the reader, to supply the narrative, which you do. What the piece offers, rather, is an image, a sensation, fully formed, and you shade in the subtext and meaning.

In our media-saturated and image-driven culture, in which we are trained to think fast and  sequentially, and decipher images quickly and subconsciously—like making decisions while driving a car—perhaps flash fiction corresponds more easily to that mode of thought, and that’s why readers are drawn to it. It puts a slightly different interpretive demand on us than do longer works, which are more linearly structured and both more and less subtle.

I’m not predicting the end of long-form fiction, especially not now that we have ebooks, and we don’t have to pay for our page lengths. But it asks something else of us. And I wonder now if, in my own case, my longer stories and novels are asking—and offering—the right things.

Here are some thoughts from other writers on short fiction as a form. Now go write!